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Part 1 of 2
The Moving Finger Writes
By Wolfgang McCollough
Note: This is a long story, with two parts; to quote Lord Byron,
Yet still there whispers the small voice within,
"Don't think you can finish? Best not to begin."
Or something along those lines. After that willful abuse of the exquisite Lord Byron, if you're still determined, read on.
The Moving Finger writes; and having writ
Moves on; not all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
The human will is free only within the bounds of a determined cosmic system.
Xena was riding on Argo, her head gently bobbing up and down with each of Argo's strides. The green forest was filled with the sounds of birds, animals and insects, all busy with their own activities and plans. Walking beside the warrior was Gabrielle, her legs moving at double time to keep up; but the bard was well-trained: she wasn't even winded as she stepped forward, propelling herself along with her staff. Instead, Gabrielle was chattering, "See, 'Aphrodite' comes from the word, 'aphros,' which means 'foam.' It reflects the oldest tales concerning her birth, when Gaea took Uranus as her consort, and her son, Cronus, severed his father's genitals and threw them into the sea, thus producing the white foam out of which came Aphrodite herself. At the Academy, Homer kept insisting that Aphrodite was the daughter of Zeus and Dione, who was Zeus' consort at Dodona. But I think it's just a cover-up, because Aphrodite's too embarrassed to allow the real story to circulate; after all, who would want to have it known that you came from the foam of your great-grandfather's genitals?"
Xena scrunched up her face a little. "Gabrielle, could you talk about something else? Maybe something that won't ruin my appetite?"
"Oh, sorry." Gabrielle's stomach growled. "Is it almost time to stop and eat?"
By the sun, Xena could tell that it was only an hour or so until sunset, but they were nowhere near a village, although they were close to the forest's edge. Xena was debating whether to camp in the woods or on the plain that opened up before them; the woods would provide cover, but she knew that Gabrielle was getting sick of sleeping on rocks, branches, and other miscellaneous objects that cluttered the forest floor-she wasn't so fond of the idea of another uncomfortable night herself.
Suddenly, a horse pounded across the open field, followed quickly by several others. Xena pulled Argo up just within the shadows of the forest; Gabrielle ran up to Xena.
"What is it?"
"Horsemen; looks like those five are ganging up on the black."
The black horse suddenly whirled and ran back through the center of the pursuing horses, its rider clinging low to its neck. The pursuers gave up yells of surprise, and in trying to imitate the sharpness of the black's turn, two were quickly thrown off their mounts. The black had already stopped running; its rider had dismounted and was facing the three that remained seated.
At first Gabrielle thought that the black's rider had also been thrown, left to struggle painfully on his knees; but she quickly realized that the rider was standing in all his glorious littleness. Even from that distance, Gabrielle could see that he was not much taller than she was, possibly even shorter.
When the horsemen saw that the black's rider was standing, unarmed, they also dismounted.
All drew their swords. The lone rider didn't move.
"Don't you think you had better see to your injured comrades-in-arms back there?" The voice was unmistakeably female; it lilted in cadence, much as a child's would, and sounded just as wide-eyed and earnest as a babe's.
Gabrielle sensed, rather than saw, Xena tense. She knows that rider, raced through her head.
The tallest of the three men replied, "They can wait the few seconds it'll take for us to round up a little horse-thief like you." They then ran at her, swords drawn and mouths open to issue war whoops; their intention was clearly to scare the woman, not actually to strike her. However, the woman neatly dodged the first attacker's body, and, grabbing his arm and torso, sent him crashing unceremoniously to the earth, face first; the weight of his entire body pounded his head into the ground and into unconsciousness. She had maneuvered herself out from between the two remaining attackers so that one man stood between her and his companion; as the middle man swung at her, she continued to move so that the middleman's friend could not fight without injuring him. Suddenly, she fell to the ground and swiped the middleman's legs out from under him; even before he had hit the ground, the woman placed her foot upon his body as if it were her personal stepping stone, and propelled herself over the head of the second man. She landed facing his back; she jumped over him once more, this time taking his cloak with her, and landed with a bone-crunching thud on the now-prone middleman's back. She twisted around to face the second man, trapping the arms he had raised to grab at her as she flew over his head within his own cloak in the process, and, with quick hands, tied up his cloak in a tight knot over his head, pinning his arms against his ears. He looked ridiculous, and Gabrielle couldn't help giggling. Even as her hands flew up to cover her mouth, she saw that it was too late, for the small woman had heard the laugh.
"Couldn't you just go away? I left the money for the black in a pouch, tied to the bridle of the horse I left in his place." Again, that lilting voice; this time, the woman faced their general direction, and Gabrielle saw that the eyes were indeed as wide and the face as earnest as the voice had sounded.
Gabrielle didn't miss the annoyed look that Xena had shot at her for giggling; but before Gabrielle had a chance to retort, Xena was riding Argo out of the forest into the clearing.
When the woman saw who the rider was, she noticeably stiffened. "Hello, Xena."
"Long time, Cherub."
At Xena's words, Cherub rubbed her head ruefully as she half-smiled, half-grimaced. "No one's called me that in a long time." Then she noticed the red-head peering around Argo's long neck. "Who's your friend?"
"Gabrielle, this is Galatea, otherwise known as Cherub; Cherub, this is Gabrielle," and Xena gave the bard a playful push on her shoulder to force her out from behind Argo. Gabrielle glared at Xena before looking back at Cherub.
"Hi, Galatea?" It was a question.
"Well met, Gabrielle. Galatea's fine, thanks. Only Xena and Marcus ever called me anything else."
If Xena was bothered by the passing reference to her dead love, she didn't allow it to show. "You certainly improved in hand-to-hand combat," she said, nodding toward the men who were now struggling to haul their bruised bodies and broken bones away. "Although you still have your own unique style."
"I do my best." Cherub gave Gabrielle a long, deliberate stare. "Xena, I believe Gabrielle is starving." Gabrielle looked up from Cherub to Xena in surprise.
Xena's expression was sharp. Her eyes narrowed a little as she asked, "How do you know that?"
"I don't, really; I just know that I am, and want you both to join me." When she saw the warrior's expressionless face, Cherub added, with that earnest voice, "Then you can keep your eye on me for a little while without resorting to spying."
This time, Gabrielle caught the giggle in her throat, not allowing it to escape; the look on Xena's face had been almost too much for her.
Xena growled in her low voice, "Let's move back into the forest to set up camp." *If Gabrielle tosses and turns all night trying to find a spot that's free of rocks and branches, it would be just what she deserves*, Xena thought with grim satisfaction.
Gabrielle sat back closer to the fire, her stomach quite full, her face lit up with a sated smile.
Xena couldn't help but shake her head in silent laughter.
"Are you sure you've had enough, Gabrielle? There's still the other half of the lamb you didn't get around to devouring."
Gabrielle merely hiccupped in reply. After a few of those, she began to fumble around for the water bag, which turned out to be empty.
Cherub's face was a mix of fascination and green nausea at the sheer quantity of food that the petite bard had managed to pack away. "There's another water bag in my saddle bag; do you think you can get it for yourself, or should I help you?"
"Don't be silly," Gabrielle staggered to her feet, eliciting a low chuckle from Xena. Gabrielle ignored Xena and walked over to the black; she began to poke through the saddle bags, all the while warily eyed by the horse.
"It's a good thing that last village was so generous; to think, I almost returned half of it, believing that it was more than one human being could ever hope to eat."
Gabrielle didn't hear Cherub's dig; instead, she pulled out a long, thin leather satchel.
"What's in this, scrolls?"
When Cherub saw the satchel, she jumped to her feet, catching what looked like a piece of wood just as it slipped out of the leather satchel, but before it hit the ground; she gently but firmly pulled the satchel out of Gabrielle's hands and cradled it on her lap, unrolling the leather to reveal a second wooden stick, about two feet long just like its mate.
"What are those?" Gabrielle asked, kneeling down beside Cherub to take a closer look at the sticks.
"This is my most prized possession. I'd venture to say that I value it as much as Xena values her horse."
Xena, who was leaning against a gnarled tree trunk, merely harrumphed from her position behind the two women.
Gabrielle and Cherub both turned back to glance at Xena; then they looked at each other.
"I don't know; Xena really loves Argo."
"There's a small pouch in the lining of that bag," Cherub replied; Gabrielle rummaged through the saddle bag a second time and pulled out a much smaller satchel made of the same dark leather. "Yeah, that's it; toss it to me, please." Gabrielle grabbed the water bag in one hand and the smaller pouch in the other, and walked back to where Cherub was seated and handed it to her.
"What is it, a weapon?" Gabrielle took a seat in front of Cherub and took a big swig of water to silence her hiccups. Her curiosity was raised as she watched Cherub fit the two sticks of wood side by side; the sticks had holes drilled into them at regular intervals.
"It has saved my life on more than one occasion." Cherub opened the smaller satchel and pulled out two thinly sliced, narrow reeds; she placed them in her mouth and began to moisten them with her saliva.
"Well, it's still too short to be a staff. How do you use it?"
Cherub shook her head in amusement; she pushed the reeds to the corner of her mouth so that she could speak. "Gabrielle, it's a musical instrument; you blow into it. It's an Egyptian 'mat'; you play it as you play the aulos: you blow in the left cane to keep a single note, and finger the melody on the right cane."
Gabrielle watched as Cherub pulled the reeds out of her mouth and carefully inserted them into the small openings at the top of each cane; the reeds slanted toward each other, and Cherub covered them both with her mouth and began to play a few notes, rapidly covering each of the holes in succession with her right hand, while her left held the instrument steady. From where she sat, Xena could only see Cherub's back and Gabrielle's face.
Cherub stopped playing, a distant look in her eyes.
Cherub had to force herself to focus on Gabrielle's impatient face. "Huh?"
"You're not going to make me drag the story out of you, the way Xena does, are you?" Gabrielle was kneeling on the ground, her hands on her waist. At Gabrielle's words, another grumble came their way.
Cherub glanced over at Xena. When she saw the blue eyes fixed on Gabrielle's face, she shifted position to get out of the line of sight, backing away and turning her body to face neither the bard nor the warrior, but out into the dark night.
"No, there just isn't all that much to tell." She saw the bard raise an impatient eyebrow at her and decided that she had better tell it anyway. "I was traveling through Arabia and was approaching a village, when I saw horsemen thundering down a hill. I ran into the village thinking I would be safer there, but instead found myself rounded up with the rest of its people and thrown into a dungeon. It was my first night under the Arabian moon, and it seemed exceptionally beautiful as I gazed at it through the small slit window in the ceiling. I still had my mat with me and began to play. The vizier had a daughter who heard my playing as it exited through that slit in the ceiling to embrace her as she walked in the cool darkness of that Arabian night; she had me brought out of the dungeon to play for her. She also happened to be the sultan's new bride, and in time, she interceded on my behalf before her husband; with her golden tongue she managed to free, not only me, but the entire village as well." Gabrielle listened with such concentrated attention, that she drew Cherub's eyes to her face. Cherub was struck by the winsomeness of the bard, and her eyes softened with memory and gentle humor. "You rather remind me of her; she could have talked a mama bear out of her cubs."
Gabrielle found herself smiling back at Cherub. "What was her name?"
"Shahrazad," rolled off her lips like a liquid wave.
"What a lovely name."
"The woman was even lovelier."
"Play something, please?"
Cherub looked at the bard's bright face and smiled, nodding her head. Pausing for a second she closed her eyes to remember, her head tilted a little to her right. Then, opening her eyes, she raised the mat to her lips and began to play-a soft, lyrical song, gently evocative and sweetly romantic.
Gabrielle was somehow certain that this was the song that had captivated the young sultaness and captured her favor. "That's beautiful."
"Hmm." Cherub's mind was in her memories.
"It is, Cherub; I've never heard you play before." Xena's voice was low, but clear; it brought Cherub's attention back to the present.
Cherub glanced at Xena, the ghost of a smile at the corners of her mouth. "That's because I didn't know how to play before. I picked it up a few years ago while I was traveling through Egypt."
Gabrielle was about to ask how the two knew each other, but Xena spoke first; the warrior's tone had changed just a bit, but Gabrielle was sensitive to any change in Xena's voice, so that what was a monotone to most people possessed and expressed many subtleties to the bard.
"What else have you picked up since the last time I saw you?"
"I might ask you the same question, Xena."
Gabrielle could see that underlying the cool, almost casual nature of the words, the two women were regarding each other with critical and keen eyes. It didn't take a prodigious intellect to realize that they were ready for some kind of confrontation, but were waiting for a more private moment. Gabrielle decided to oblige them, but with one ear open.
She yawned broadly. "Well, I don't know about you two, but I'm ready to sleep; all that walking is catching up with me." She rolled out her bed roll. "Good night."
"Sleep well, Gabrielle," Xena said.
Gabrielle turned her back to the two women, her face to the fire. She mumbled back, "Uh hum."
After a few minutes, heavy breathing and a light snoring were the only sounds that came from the curled up bard.
Xena indicated silently with a small jerk of the head for Cherub to come away a short distance from the bard where their conversation would be less likely to disturb her sleep. Cherub just as noiselessly followed.
The two women stood face to face, or rather, Xena towered over Cherub, while Cherub craned her neck back to look up at the face that was almost hidden in shadows.
Cherub waited for the tall warrior to ask the first question; it was a while in coming.
"Are you following me, Cherub?"
"No, Xena; I never thought to meet you again."
"Nor I you; so you have to admit that it's too much of a coincidence, our meeting up again after all these years?"
"Almost seven years. Yes, this is all too convenient." Cherub's brown eyes looked back serenely at the intense blues.
"I've heard stories about you, Cherub."
"Really? I've heard a few myself-about you."
Xena frowned at the glibness with which Cherub was treating their conversation. "I've heard that you're heavily mixed up with the gods, and that your fate is peculiarly in their hands."
"I heard that your life is in limbo, held between this life and the afterlife by the gods; that you have no soul," Xena retorted abruptly, frustrated by Cherub's deliberate ambiguity.
"And I've heard that you're a reformed woman," Cherub replied lightly. "Do you feel sometimes that you are in limbo? Held-how did you put it-'between this life and the afterlife'?"
Xena reined in her frustration with a sharp smile that didn't reach her eyes. "I've found my soul, Cherub; how about you?"
"Never lost it, Xena."
Xena remembered why she had never really trusted Cherub, despite the epithet; she was too damned composed and detached.
"Still the same Cherub." Xena's tone was not too friendly.
This time, it was Cherub's forehead that wrinkled in displeasure.
"You're not the same Xena, though. In the days when I was a part of your army, you were all anger and barely contained rage; so tightly strung that I knew you wouldn't live long: someone or something was bound to trigger what was burning within you, and cause you either to blow up completely or simply to implode-I wasn't sure which would be worse. I watched you kill men until it seemed that we were simply awash in blood, and yet your bloodlust wouldn't be satisfied."
Xena's eyes were almost black, her pupils dilated, as Cherub's words forced the memories to rush back; she was almost beside herself with anger, but only replied sarcastically, "I didn't know that I was being watched, or else I would have tried to make a better impression."
Cherub's voice remained unemotional. "I'm not judging you, Xena; I never did. I only observed.
I didn't stay with your army because I wanted to moralize."
"Why did you stay with my army?"
"You know as well as I do that I needed the bodies of the unidentifiable dead to conduct my studies."
For the first time, Cherub's brown eyes seemed to soften. "Xena, I don't want to be your enemy. In fact, I would like to be your friend. I see in you a change that astonishes me. The person I see before me now: the face is the same, but the person..." Cherub trailed off, her voice inflected with wonder, "the person seems completely new; even your eyes-somehow-they are different. I discovered for Hera the spring of virgin renewal, but you've found something I've never been able to find." When Cherub met Xena's eyes this time, there was a look of respect that Xena had never seen there before. "How did you change, Xena? Who or what changed you?"
Xena didn't know what to say, and was silent for a moment. Then she drew in her breath
and deliberately, and answered, "Hercules would have said that it was truth that changed me
the moment when I looked at myself, at what I had become, and realized that I had allowed my hatred to change me into a monster. Gabrielle would say that it was love and forgiveness that changed me, breaking the cycle of hatred before it could devour me completely. I say I was lucky." Xena shrugged her shoulders. "Perhaps it was all three at once: Hercules' honest goodness, Gabrielle's love and friendship, my luck. You don't really expect me to be able to answer your question, do you?" Xena was shocked a second time to see that the other woman had expected just that.
Cherub broke eye contact and looked at the ground. "I am not the same person I was, Xena." It seemed she would say more, but-no-Cherub walked back to the camp, rolled out her bed roll, and lay down to sleep.
It wasn't until several minutes later that Gabrielle heard Xena lay down near her, placing herself between Gabrielle and Cherub.
Gabrielle and Cherub were still asleep when Xena got up; in fact, so was the sun, for it was not quite dawn yet.
When Xena returned to the campsite proper after having gone a little deeper into the woods to stretch and warm up her muscles, the first rays of dawning were creeping to set Gabrielle's hair on fire. Xena smiled as she watched her friend sleep, the bard's lips moving a little as she mumbled to herself in dream. She then glanced over at Cherub; her eyes had been on the small, dark-haired woman for just a moment when Cherub's eyes opened. She sat up, awake without the slightest sign of sleep around her. She returned Xena's gaze with clear, dark eyes.
"Good morning, Xena." Cherub got to her feet and rolled up her bed roll.
"It is that," Xena replied, as she turned without giving Cherub another glance, bending over Gabrielle to wake her up.
As they ate a light breakfast of fruit and bread, Xena and Cherub continued their conversation from the night before, although a little more indirectly. As they spoke, Gabrielle had to stop herself from rolling her eyes at the discreet beating-around-the-bush which was probably due to some misguided notion of protecting her.
"Where are you headed, Cherub? Or would you prefer not to say?" Xena asked casually enough.
"Phrygia is my destination," Cherub replied, turning to point away from the rising sun, "north-west of here, about a two day journey by horse. Then I go to Thebes. After that I return to Sparta, and finally, Athens."
"What's in Phrygia?"
"The heart of Pentheus."
"The king of Thebes?" Gabrielle asked around a mouthful of food.
Cherub nodded. "He was torn to pieces by the Bacchants for attempting to spy on them, but they keep his heart as a souvenir. Actually, it was moved to Phrygia from the temple in Nysa, but I just missed a chance to nab it there and so had to trace it to Phrygia. His widow refuses to bury him without his heart, and the Thebans are afraid that Pentheus' spirit will return to punish them if he isn't properly buried-and soon."
"We had a run-in with the Bacchants a while ago; they're a little...." Gabrielle trailed off, unable to find an adequate word to describe the women.
"There's nothing 'little' about the Bacchants, even with their lord Bacchus no longer walking among men." Xena was about to ask how Cherub knew of Bacchus' defeat already, since the story had not had time to circulate yet, but Cherub seemed to anticipate her question. "I visited the oracle of Orpheus on Lesbos, figuring he would be the best person to help me since it was the Maenads of Thrace who attacked him; along with the location of Pentheus' heart, I learned about how Joxer the Mighty, with the help of some Amazons, brought the head of Orpheus to that island."
Even Xena couldn't stop a small, wry smile; Gabrielle exclaimed, "'Joxer the Mighty'? Ha!
Cherub didn't understand the reaction of the two women to that name, but Xena merely waved it off as unimportant. Cherub continued, "I have to admit, though, that the most fascinating part of the story for me was how you and Gabrielle defeated Bacchus by becoming Bacchants yourselves."
Gabrielle shivered involuntarily at the shadow of memory.
Cherub noticed and said apologetically, "Sorry; it's probably less fascinating and a lot more frightening to you."
Gabrielle nodded silently. "You could say that, although my memory of the event is a little hazy, especially the period when I was one of them."
"Why are you looking for Pentheus' heart?" Xena pushed.
"Someone had to do it," Cherub shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly, "and no one else was willing. Besides, Cassiopeia, Pentheus' widow, asked for my help. I'm not a hero, but I have nothing to lose by trying."
Xena didn't say anything, but Gabrielle knew that the warrior's silence was one of incredulity, since it was a rather dubious claim that there was nothing to be lost by going against the blood-thirsty Bacchants.
The silence threatened to stretch thin, and Cherub abruptly rose to her feet; they had finished eating a while ago. "Well, thank you for your company and your conversation; I think this is where we part company. Gabrielle, it was a pleasure to meet you; Xena, as always, it's been an education."
"I don't think we should go separate ways just yet. You'll need help to succeed against the Bacchants." Xena got up as well, her face already set in a concentrated frown.
"Do you think I'm crying out for a hero?" It was a sarcastic remark, but spoken with that wide-eyed voice which Gabrielle found so incongruous.
"No, but I know Cassiopeia, too, and would like to help give Pentheus a proper burial for her sake. Besides, Gabrielle and I were headed in the same general direction; a stop in Phrygia won't take us that far out of our way." There was no one among the three women who doubted that this was an outright lie, so no one bothered to comment on it. Xena smiled dangerously. "I have nothing to lose by trying."
Gabrielle was a little surprised when Cherub offered no further protests, but simply began packing up her saddle bags and breaking camp. Xena also made no additional comment, but rode off on Argo to make sure that no one was behind them, especially no posses out to catch horse-thieving females.
Gabrielle decided that she had better take advantage of Xena's absence to squeeze some answers out of Cherub about their relationship in the past.
Cherub regarded the red-headed Gabrielle thoughtfully. "I'm sure you could persuade me to tell you all the details and reduce to you tears from sheer boredom, but I wish you wouldn't. You're a big part of Xena's present, and I don't know if Xena would want me to share my small part in her past, especially since it might affect both of your futures. Why don't you ask her?"
Gabrielle snorted impatiently. "That's hard enough when it's just the two of us; but with you here with us, it'll be near impossible to learn anything from Xena, especially since you and she seem intent on "protecting" me by keeping me in the dark-hmph." Gabrielle blew out her breath in exasperation, expressing even more impatience with this idea. "It's not like I'm oblivious to what's going on."
Cherub's eyes narrowed, but her eyes and the smile on her lips showed that she was amused and even grudgingly respectful. "You eavesdropped on our conversation last night."
"The two of you made it so clear that you wanted to talk, so I decided to give you the chance; it's not my fault that I couldn't sleep with all your whispering."
"Remind me next time to move out of range of those nosy ears." Gabrielle, surprised, turned at the sound of Xena's low voice immediately behind her; Xena stood, hands on hip and unamused.
Gabrielle decided that a little levity was called for; she smiled weakly and a little guiltily, "'Nosy ears,' Xena?"
"We have to get going now, but don't think for a minute that you're talking your way out of this one, Gabrielle." Xena offered Gabrielle her arm and pulled the small woman up behind her on Argo's back. "Lead the way, Cherub."
They rode for the rest of the day with no stops until after sunset; they had already crossed the flat plain and were once again within a well-wooded and hilly area. Gabrielle was truly weary this time, her blood still pumping in her head, thumping to the rhythm that had been set by Argo's feet as they galloped. Eating quickly, all three women were ready to sleep, but Xena scouted the periphery of their campsite to make sure that no one had been following them.
Gabrielle lay down, but she said drowsily, "Galatea, how are you different now from the first time you and Xena knew each other? I'm not asking about Xena, so it's okay to tell me, that is, if you feel like it."
Cherub tucked one arm under her neck and chewed thoughtfully at her lip before answering. "Xena's right about my being heavily mixed up with the gods of Olympus," she began, a little hesitantly, "I know that Xena hates any business that involves them, and she's right on that account as well. Smart woman, that Xena."
Gabrielle turned to face Cherub, her eyes open and fixed upon the other woman's face.
felt her eyes but continued to stare up at the night sky.
"The thing is, they don't know what exactly to do with me. I found the spring of Canathus that restores virgin purity to Hera each new spring, and Zeus appreciates the almost pleasant mood that Hera is in after each annual bath. Apollo at first wanted to punish me, since he felt that I didn't have a proper awareness of my guilt; he had his arrow aimed at me, that he might purify me of it, but had a change of heart when he realized my skill had made me a favorite with his son, Asclepius, the healing god. Athena takes credit for my talent, since I am originally from Athens. On the other side, Hades detests me and wants to punish me in Tartarus for my impiety.
Since I am the one who taught Diomedes, the commander of the Argive ships in the Trojan War, how he might wound her, Aphrodite also wants me condemned for eternity. Normally, Hades would have the last and final say, but I guess the others are more persuasive than usual-just not quite persuasive enough. They've been arguing over what do with me for the past five years."
Gabrielle raised her head in perplexion. "But none of the gods have any real say, one way or the other, right? I mean, it's the Fates who will ultimately decide the length of your time on this earth."
Cherub finally glanced over at Gabrielle. "The Fates have already decided; Gabrielle, the Fates cut the thread of my life on a battlefield five years ago, only I find myself released back into the land of the living until the gods can come to a judgment about my life."
Gabrielle's eyes widened in fear, and involuntarily, she drew back from Cherub.
Just then Xena returned, and when Gabrielle practically jumped at the sight of her as she emerged from the darkness outside the circle of light shed by the fire, Xena shot an angry glare at Cherub. "Gabrielle, are you all right?"
"Yea-ah; good night, Xena."
Xena looked like an angry thundercloud and her eyes sparked dangerously; she tramped over to where Cherub lay and lifted her bodily to her feet. "We need to talk," she said gruffly, and stomped off to where Argo and the black were tied to a tree, a distance well out of earshot from where Gabrielle lay, sleeping or feigning sleep.
Cherub stood for a while without moving; then slowly, she walked to stand by Xena and the horses.
"What did you say to her?" Xena whispered fiercely, her entire being a collective expression of menace.
"I didn't mean to scare her. I was just answering her questions, but my life-"
"What did you say to her!?" Xena was furious.
"I told her about my 'peculiar' situation, Xena. I didn't mean to spook her, honestly; I forget sometimes that my life is unnerving."
Xena forced herself to calm down. "I don't want you saying anything more about this to
Gabrielle, and I mean it. If you do-"
"I had no intention of mentioning it again, Xena."
Even as Xena tried to push the anger away, down into her belly where it wouldn't poison her thinking, a small feathery whisper of a doubt escaped and insinuated itself into a corner of her head, and wouldn't go away.
"Are you really going to Phrygia to find the head of Pentheus? Or is there more to this than meets the eye?"
Cherub received Xena's words without blinking. "Isn't there always more to everything than meets the eye, Xena? Even those sharp peepers of yours? The world is three-dimensional, with textures and deep down hidden things-that's why the gods placed tears within the eyes, for pity of eyes that see, but never perceive. Want to rephrase your question?"
Xena brought her face within an eyelash of Cherub's face. "Yeah, as a statement. Or a promise.
However you want to take it. If we go to Phrygia, and Gabrielle gets hurt," Xena shook her head, her eyes knifing, "don't stick around counting on my memories of our 'good old days.' Just turn around and run." She fixed Cherub with those scalding eyes for another second before returning to the campfire.
Sleep was not easy: Cherub felt Xena's angry eyes on her for quite a while; but somehow, Cherub managed to get to sleep, because the next thing she knew, she was wide awake, sitting up suddenly but silently, like an oiled hinge. Xena was still asleep, again in a spot between the other two women. Cherub knew that she had been asleep because of the dream.
Noiselessly, almost-it seemed to her-in slow-motion or as if moving through water, Cherub rose and collected her bed roll. She readied her horse, the black remaining unnaturally still;
mounted and rode off. And the moon shone strangely.
Xena awoke with a throbbing headache; she groaned lightly, rubbing her head and her eye at the same time, then noticed with a curse that the sun was already up, and had been for quite a while.
A much more vehement one followed closely on the heels of the first curse as Xena rose and walked over to where she knew Cherub should have been, except that she wasn't. She turned to look over at the horses, and was greeted only by a greeting nicker from Argo; the black was nowhere to be seen. Instinctively, she went to check Gabrielle, but the bard was not only still there, she was snoring deeply.
"Gabrielle, wake up." Xena shook her shoulders roughly.
Gabrielle groaned, turning over as she mumbled, "Five more minutes, Xena, head hurts."
"Gabrielle, there's no time for this: WAKE UP!"
With a loud moan, Gabrielle sat up, her eyes still closed as she grumbled, "This had better be good." One of her lids lifted and, squinting, tried to focus in on Xena's face. "What time is it, anyway? It's so sunny."
"That's because the sun's almost directly above us."
Gabrielle's other eye now flew open. "What?!"
"It's only a little bit before midday. We somehow overslept by several hours, and Cherub conveniently timed her departure to take advantage of it."
Xena saw a shadow of unmistakeable fear flit across Gabrielle's face like a cloud in a windswept sky.
"How do you think she managed to do that?"
For a second, Xena remained in a squat, her hand absently smoothing an errant lock of red hair; then she stood up. "Don't know, don't care-yet. First, I have to track her. Break camp while I scout a bit to pick up her trail."
Gabrielle watched Xena run over to Argo and swing herself into the saddle in a fluid motion, wanting to ask Xena not to go after Cherub at all, but seeing from the set of the tall warrior's shoulders and the length of her stride that Xena was mad, fuming and red-hot mad. So Gabrielle bit her tongue against the fear and misgiving that persisted in rising unbidden like bile into her already tight throat. Instead, she busied herself with collecting the bed rolls and other assorted articles, and putting out the fire. She had just started to pack up the cooking utensils when Xena returned. She almost ran over to where Xena was already dismounting.
"Horsetracks are headed northwest; looks like Cherub was impatient to get to Phrygia, and decided not to stand by while we overslept."
"H-how do you think she, I mean, why do you think we overslept like this?"
Xena looked at Gabrielle, noticing the fear for the third time; she still didn't know how to deal with it-she didn't have any answers-but this time, she couldn't ignore it. One strong hand closed around Gabrielle's arm and squeezed it lightly; Gabrielle, for some reason, felt reassured.
"I don't know, Gabrielle; maybe she spiked our food, maybe she used magic. How isn't as important as why, and I'll bet that the answer to that won't be any less disturbing. Whatever else happens, at least now we know that she has other business in Phrygia besides doing Cassiopeia a favor, and that means trouble. Do you feel up to riding?" The look she gave Gabrielle belied the casualness of the question.
Gabrielle didn't bother to try to hide her feelings; she knew Xena's ability of reading people, and, besides, she was an easy read, even for less perceptive eyes. "No, but I'd feel better being with you on horseback than waiting here without you. Let's go."
Xena watched the uncertain smile that Gabrielle tried to force onto her face as she answered. *That's one mark against you, Cherub; keep it up and we'll see if there's anyplace deep down enough to hide you from me.* Grimly, Xena rode with Gabrielle seated behind her.
They were within a half-day's hard ride from Phrygia when Xena and Gabrielle came upon two men who were being attacked by several bandits. With a whoop Xena threw herself from Argo's back, her right leg swinging in a wide arc over the mare's head, and landed on her feet, drawing her sword the second her feet touched ground.
The bandits turned at the sound of her cry, and when they saw her, sword drawn and lip curled up in a dangerous smile, one of them gulped, "Xena!" That was enough to send the entire pack of them running, almost falling over each other in their retreat.
Xena watched them run, not sure whether to be glad that the situation had been resolved so easily or disgusted that they had been so cowardly. The larger of the two men who had almost fallen to the bandits was kneeling over the smaller figure that lay bleeding upon the ground. Xena sheathed her sword and ran over to the men.
The smaller one was soaked in warm blood; as she knelt down at his side opposite his larger companion, Xena realized that he was only a boy.
"Where is the bleeding coming from?"
The large man was soaked to his elbows in blood, and he seemed to be shaking slightly. When he didn't answer her question, Xena was about to repeat herself impatiently, but stopped: following his arms to where his hands rested against the boy's abdomen, it was obvious enough where the boy was bleeding-and what was stopping it.
Xena quickly opened the boy's eyelid and saw only two white orbs shot through with small red vessels, the eyes fluttering rapidly in their sockets. The boy's skin was alarmingly cold and clammy. Xena called over her shoulder, "Gabrielle, bring my medicines and some clean cloths.
Also the water skin. Hurry!" She shifted to address the large man. "How long has he been bleeding like this?"
The man seemed to be in shock; he merely stared at her in a disbelieving way, as if she were somehow unreal to him. When she barked again, "How long?!" he seemed to revive somewhat as he mumbled, "Long, too long." Xena turned again and yelled back, "Gabrielle, quickly!"
Gabrielle ran over to Xena, tripping a little and almost dropping everything in her rush. Xena grabbed a cloth and gently pushed the man's hands off the wound; a small geyser of blood shot out from within the abdomenal cavity, but, with the application of steady pressure through the cloth, the bleeding seemed to lessen. Xena was reaching back to grab another cloth from Gabrielle when her friend took in a sharp breath and dropped all the things loaded up in her arms to the ground. Angry, Xena turned back to rebuke Gabrielle when she saw that Gabrielle wasn't even looking at her, but at the boy's large companion.
"Papa?" Gabrielle said once, and the man sat frozen where he knelt.
Maximian found himself looking across the bleeding body of Diodorus into the face of his youngest daughter who had run away from home, the face of a child that he had declared dead to him and his family, the child who had betrayed his love and all that he believed in order to follow a woman who had just saved his life, and was now trying to save Diodorus'. He could not speak.
Gabrielle felt her heart squeeze within her until it seemed her bones had melted. She dropped to her knees beside him, and lifted up her arms weakly toward him. "Papa?" A question this time of hurt, not surprise; still Maximian could not answer.
The funny thing was that Maximian had been thinking of her before the attack came. Gabrielle, his little red jay, loved best because she was his little chattering, garrulous, loveable bird. The little girl who would run into his arms when he returned, tired as he was from a day's labor in the fields, and cover his face with kisses that were sweeter than the dew of morning.
whose name had not been spoken in his house since the day his wife had discovered that she'd run away to join Xena; and he had replied with the words, "We have other children, other daughters. Gabrielle is dead to us." He was looking into her face now, and a part of his heart wanted to bend. She had betrayed everything that he believed in, had betrayed his love and trust, when she ran away without a word. She had rejected the ways of his people which had kept them alive despite warlords and slavers, through starvation and famine and plague. She had rejected it all in order to follow a warrior princess in her wanderings through a wide, far away place. But could he really reject his daughter, his little girl, his jay? And even as his heart wanted to yield, he closed it with a resounding NO! against all the old memories. His daughter was dead; she had been swallowed up by the woman beside him, who looked so much like her, but who had caused her to betray the love of father, mother, sister, family, people, history and tradition. His hands were coated with blood, but he raised them up, closing them into fists, and declared with force, "NO!"
Gabrielle was stunned; it was as if she had lost all power to feel; all she could manage was a choked, "Papa, please!"
This time, Maximian stood up. His heart was torn into two. He only repeated, more quietly, "No, no, no!"
Xena, her hands still bandaging the boy, saw the pain on Gabrielle's face and looked with burning anger at the cause. But she was shocked to see Gabrielle's face there as well-fierce and contorted by grief and anguish, lined and aged, tanned and bearded, a man's face-and yet, Gabrielle's eyes, her nose, her face.
The stunned look did not disappear from his face as he bent down and picked up Diodorus as if he weighed less than a feather; without another word, he turned and began to walk toward the wagon and horses which the bandits had been attempting to steal. He laid the boy gently upon the ground again; then he turned to his wagon and began to haul the baskets filled with corn and grain off the wagon and onto the ground. He removed half of the wagon's contents and cleared out a space into which he placed several blankets. It was here that Maximian laid Diodorus to rest. Still fixing his eyes steadfastly ahead, he climbed onto the driver's seat and gently urged his horses into a walk, leaving behind the produce he had been carrying to market and the two women who watched him.
Gabrielle sat upon a low-hanging branch of a laurel tree by the road, her head buried in her folded arms. Small wracking sobs shook her little figure. Xena placed her hand gently upon Gabrielle's red head, stroking her hair lightly. The warrior was silent.
Finally, unable to bear her friend's suffering any more, Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's shoulders and pulled her to her chest, a little awkwardly but with her eyes shut to the tears that rose unbidden from some place deeper. Gabrielle turned her face to rest her cheek against Xena's shoulder, a choked sob escaping from her lips. Uncertainly, a little self-consciously, Xena resumed soothing Gabrielle, stroking her hair with one hand.
Maximian wiped Diodorus' brow with a wet cloth, watching with concern the boy's extreme paleness, his cold sweating, his rapid and shallow breathing, his shivering. Diodorus was dying.
When he had finished seeing to the boy's wound, Maximian wearily leaned back to rest against the wall. He had not slept since the attack, and that had been three days and two nights ago. He rested his head against his arms where they were folded across his bent knees. He slept fitfully.
Gabrielle was a little girl, dressed in a black frock that her mother had made for her. She was standing by an open grave, her eyes wide, her blonde-red hair hanging almost limply against her forehead on that warm, sunny day. A goose flew overhead, but it seemed to make no sound at all; everything was a hushed, held breath. Beside Gabrielle were her sisters, and farthest away was Mama. Even with her eyes fixed on the grave, Gabrielle's hand was outstretched; she reached for her Mama to hold her, but Mama was bereaved. Helplessly, pathetically, Gabrielle's fingers waved in the air as she sought her mother, her attention drawn downward by the rough, pale wood of the coffin. Maximian had just thrown a handful of dark, dank earth upon that wood which enclosed his eldest child, his one and only son, and without seeing, he walked over to his youngest daughter and took her left hand-not the one outstretched piteously-and began to draw her toward the grave and the mound of dirt, to guide her to take a handful of it and sprinkle it as a farewell to her brother, her idol. But Gabrielle's eyes grew impossibly wide, and she resisted, pulling back with all her strength against her father's leading, the fingers of that right hand now outstretched fully and rigidly straight toward a weeping mother. Maximian turned to scold a rebellious child angrily, but stopped. His eyes saw, perhaps for the first time, his scared, little red jay, and his heart moved within him. It was as if it had thrown off the weight that had borne down upon it with one powerful Ahh! and Maximian closed his large hand around the tiny reaching one, bringing it to rest against her side. That little hand within his anchored his heart back within his life; he held his littlest daughter's hand loosely, yet he clung to it. Watching those wide green eyes enabled him to comfort his grieving wife, love his two daughters, and keep his hope from following his dead son to the grave.
Maximian's head lifted; a faint, croaking groan came from Diodorus' cracked lips, and Maximian immediately went over to the boy.
Xena watched the temple of Bacchus, stonefaced; she and Gabrielle had arrived in Phrygia just before a deluge that still came down heavily: night had passed into morning and morning approached afternoon, and still there were no signs of the rain letting up. Pulling on a cloak and hood, she had gone out into the rain, heading straight for the temple. A thorough search outside the temple gates as well as a bird's-eye scanning of the temple courts from a tavern roof had yielded no sighting of either Cherub or the head of Pentheus. She had already asked around the tavern; no one had any exceptional news to tell, other than a random robbery or murder. Cherub had not yet taken the heart from the temple, which was strange, bothering Xena to no end; considering the trouble she had taken to ensure a head start, it was all wrong that Cherub would be so slow to accomplish what she intended. Even as Xena watched the temple, doubt began to gnaw at her that perhaps the entire story was just a smoke screen that the wily woman had set up to divert Xena from her true goal.
Xena's mind turned to a different concern: Gabrielle. Ever since they had run into her father, Gabrielle's mood had alternated between forced joviality and fitful, moody silence. At first Xena had suspected that the bard's attempts at cheerfulness were for the warrior's sake, to prevent her from worrying too much. But as she reflected more carefully, Xena began to feel more and more that Gabrielle was trying to convince herself that her father's rejection did not hurt her, and was not succeeding. With a sigh, Xena began to think about what she should say to her suffering friend; she had tried silence, hoping that the bard would either come to terms with these feelings or share them with her, but the bard had done neither, remaining miserably unlike herself.
Suddenly, Xena's attention was drawn to a familiar wagon drawn by a team of two brown horses. Gabrielle's father's wagon. But being driven by an all-too-familiar female.
"Cherub," Xena breathed, her eyes narrowing into slits as she drew the hood more fully over her head to conceal her face in its shadows. Quickly and quietly, she set off after the wagon and its driver, carefully remaining a safe distance away to avoid detection. At one point, the road took an unexpected sharp turn and Xena suddenly found herself too close to the wagon, standing almost alone in the middle of the road, in plain sight for Cherub's keen eyes. Quick as thought, Xena launched herself into the air; straightening out her body early from a tucked position, Xena managed to hook her feet around a railing that encircled the balcony of a building alongside the road, and bracing her feet against it, she managed to pull her body in close enough to grasp onto the vertical metal bars that were covered over with ivy. Partially hidden by the ivy, Xena watched as Cherub completed the turn without a backward glance and continued on her way. Xena jumped down, right in the path of a man and woman as they were passing under the balcony. The woman let out a scream of alarm, but Xena was already gone, sprinting in pursuit after the wagon.
Xena slipped in and out of the loose packs of people who were walking down the street at a much more leisurely pace, her eye fixed on the wagon. Finally, the wagon came to stop by a small inn. Xena pulled up into a walk and tugged the hood back down over her face. She took up position behind a large cart that was being loaded up, and watched Cherub.
The small woman jumped off the wagon seat and held the reins as a stable hand ran out to meet her. Pulling down a saddle bag from the wagon's bed, she pulled out a pouch and handed it to the boy, saying something to him before he ran back into the inn, taking the bag with him. Cherub tossed the saddle bag back onto the wagon and led the horses toward the stables.
Cherub was reaching down to unhitch the horses from the wagon when she heard the faintest rustle behind her, but before she could even react to it, her arms were pulled back at a high angle that made movement painful, if not impossible, and a brown arm snaked around her neck; at almost the same instant, Cherub felt her legs kicked out from under her, so that she was practically choking within the noose of her attacker's hooked arm, the skin of her neck being pinched and cut by the metal of the bracers that covered the forearm.
Xena lowered Cherub's sputtering body to the ground, face first; pinning her down with one knee, she quickly tied Cherub's hands tightly behind her back. Finally, satisfied that her prisoner was now securely captured, Xena stood up.
"We meet again, Cherub; sorry about the extreme greeting, but a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do, especially if her guests have a tendency to leave without saying goodbye."
When Cherub made no reply, Xena went down on one knee beside her prone body and said menacingly, "Well, that's enough chitchat between old friends like us; forgive my directness, but what in Hades are you doing here?"
Xena was about to speak again, but stopped when Cherub spat out angrily, "Let me go, Xena!"
"Oh, no; not 'til I get some answers."
"Answers to what?"
"Just some general questions: like what are you really doing in Phrygia? You had at least four days to grab the heart of Pentheus, but you haven't made your move, so I know that's not really why you're here."
"What makes you think I haven't stolen the heart?"
"Just the small detail that no one seems to have heard of your little theft."
"Xena, what kind of fool do you take me for? Do you think I would steal the heart outright,
so that the entire blood-thirsty horde of madwomen would be out hunting after my heart? I replaced the heart of Pentheus with one I got from a dead bandit at the outer limits of the city," seeing that Xena was unconvinced, Cherub added, "a bandit who died raving about a certain warrior woman whom he blamed for his torture and abandonment to die by the roadside punishment by his commander for failure."
Xena raised her eyebrow, still skeptical. "Show me the heart."
"Cassiopeia has it."
"Are you telling me that you managed to pilfer Pentheus' heart without the Bacchants' noticing, and delivered it to Cassiopeia in Thebes, all within four days?"
"You've got as fanciful an imagination as Gabrielle."
"*I* didn't deliver the heart; Hermes did."
Xena felt her skepticism begin to slip, as belief began to force its way into her mind; with Cherub, that was only too probable.
"Question number two: what are you doing with this wagon? Think carefully."
"I'm returning it to its owner." Without hesitation.
"Whose the owner?"
"I don't know." Again, without pause.
"Wrong answer. You know full well that it belongs to Gabrielle's father. Now back to the original question. What are you really doing here?"
Cherub's voice changed, going from acidic to lilting. "Xena, let me go, please."
Xena knew better than to trust the sound of that voice, which seemed all innocence and honey, but which had often proved to be true only to a code that its owner possessed within herself. Rather like someone else around here, a voice whispered in her brain.
"I don't know; it was a lot of trouble to catch you. You'll have to give me a good reason."
Her request was met with a sullen silence. "Oops, time's up." Xena's light tone changed into a harsh, no-nonsense one. "On your feet." Xena hauled Cherub onto her feet and pushed her toward the stable entrance.
Suddenly Cherub whirled around to face Xena, her eyes pleading; Xena, who had instinctively jumped back and was in the act nabbing the woman, was taken aback by the look in those eyes.
"Xena, you must let me go!" When she saw Xena's eyes grow lidded so that she looked angry yet bored, and when the warrior grabbed her arm and again turned her roughly toward the entrance, Cherub jerked herself around in Xena's grip which remained clamped painfully around her triceps and pushed herself into Xena's face. "XENA! Let me go or a child will die!"
Xena was again surprised by Cherub's unwonted intensity.
Cherub pursued the silence, searching out Xena's eyes desperately. "There is a boy, who rode in the wagon that I am returning; he suffered a knife wound to his stomach and has been slowly dying. He is almost dead now. Let me go, Xena; you know my skill, you know that I might be the only one who can help him now." Cherub seemed almost to wilt, the defiance leaving her face, leaving behind only the desperation-quiet now. "Let me help him."
At Cherub's description, the image of the bleeding boy in Gabrielle's father's arms rose unbidden into Xena's mind. She reached her decision in a heartbeat. Pulling out her breast dagger, Xena sliced through Cherub's bonds. "Go, I'll follow," Xena said, her voice a monotone, but still a warning against double cross.
Cherub walked quickly to the wagon, pulled out the familiar saddle bag, flung it across her right shoulder, and set off for the inn into which the stable boy had entered; Xena followed close behind, suddenly assailed by doubt that she had done the right thing to let the tricky woman go.
Gabrielle was returning from the temple where she had gone in search of Xena; she returned alone and a little concerned that the warrior had been nowhere to be found.
When she entered the inn, however, it was to find the warrior already seated by the tavern window, her brows drawn together in thought or worry.
"Xena, where have you been?"
Xena had been wrestling with herself over what to mention, if anything, about her father's presence in Phrygia. The possibility of not saying anything at all occurred to her in moments of cowardice, for which Xena chided herself mercilessly. No, she would definitely say something; she just wasn't sure how much the bard would be able to bear. Looking at her face now, the usually happy face a little pale, a little dark under the eyes, a little drawn, Xena almost believed that it would be a kindness to say nothing at all.
"Xena, what's the matter?" Gabrielle looked up at Xena's face with the beginning of concern in her eyes.
Xena looked at her friend -- friend echoed in her head-and decided that only the truth should pass between friends.
"Gabrielle, I found Cherub. I stayed with her for most of the afternoon while she tried to heal a boy; she's still there now. Gabrielle, the boy's name is Diodorus; he's the boy who received a knife wound on the day...that is, that day when we ran into your father."
Gabrielle's face turned paler, and it seemed that her eyes grew bigger somehow, eating out a place in her face.
"Gabrielle, I couldn't not tell you this, although it might have been easier, for you and for me.
He still doesn't want to see you, Gabrielle, he says that you are dead to him and his; it was obvious that it pained him greatly to say it, yet he said it regardless; kind of like how I'm telling this to you now, although I'd rather say anything but this." Xena's eyes tried to see into her friend's heart, but the bard's face was impossible to read.
Wordlessly, Gabrielle turned away from the warrior and climbed the stairs that led to their room.
Xena watched helplessly; staying down for as long as she could bear it, hoping that she had given the bard enough space to breathe and think, hoping that her friend was ready to let her help, at least by listening, Xena followed Gabrielle.
Knocking on the door lightly, Xena called quietly, "Gabrielle?"
The door opened; Gabrielle stood just behind it, in the semigloom of the room, and Xena walked in and shut the door behind her. Then the bard went back over to take a seat on the ledge of the window, out of which the stars were visible through the branches of a sycamore tree. Xena sat on the floor in front of her friend, but not obtrusively so.
"I believe he still loves you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle continued to look out at the night. "I know he loves me, I know my father; I love him, too: that's what makes me hurt. The things I've come to love most about him-his sense of honor, of equilibrium that is centered on the traditions of his father and his father's fathers before him, of family and nation, of decency and decorum and respect-these are the things that make him refuse to see me. On one hand, I'm furious with him for being so small, for allowing these things to shut me out of his heart, for holding on to his traditions and ideas, yet rejecting his own daughter. On the other hand, he can no more abandon his traditions and ideas than he can stop breathing; how can I ask this man that I love so much to cut off the very things that make him what he is? Listen to me; I sound just like him...like father like...." Gabrielle didn't have the breath to continue.
When she continued, her voice seemed to hold the tears that she fought to keep from her eyes.
"The truth is, my father is a man of broad mind, and has already broadened the place of his heart to accept so much. When my sister told him of her decision to marry the man who is her husband without first asking for Papa's permission, my father accepted it, even blessed it; he told me that he could not look into his daughter's eyes, so full of love for the man she wanted to marry, and refuse to accept it, though such a thing went against all the traditions of his fathers.
It hurt his sense of honor, and it nearly broke his heart; but he bent his pride and took a firm hold around his heart, and accepted my sister and her husband as himself. It wasn't because he had to; it was because he decided to, and he never turned back, even when the town buzzed with malicious gossip for weeks. I made a terrible mistake when I left Potadeia without a word."
Gabrielle's eyes brimmed with tears. "I left without giving him a chance to accept me, without letting him see the love in my eyes, without giving him the space and time to bend. Now I'm afraid that I've broken his magnificent heart and crippled his generous spirit irreparably." She saw again and again her father's face when they met on the roadside, and heard his voice over and over. She buried her face into her arms to hide from the images in her head, but they were worse in the darkness behind closed eyes; she lifted her face to rest her chin and mouth against the knee that she had bent against her chest, and she continued to gaze out at the starry sky outside the window upon which she was perched, the branches of the sycamore tree seeming to interlock like the ropes of a net.
Xena was reminded of the name she had heard Maximian mumble in the fitful naps he would sink into throughout the afternoon that she had remained with Cherub. She wondered if he would be as adamant to refuse his little red jay if he could see her as she was then.
Cherub had finally managed to make Maximian get some real sleep, lying down in a real bed, with his boots off-though sleep remained fitful even then. She watched him struggle in his dreams and sighed. Not Asclepius or even Apollo himself could cure all of mankind's illnesses; and even Asclepius' best disciple could be no greater than her teacher. In her studies of human anatomy, she had come to honor the artistry and brilliant intricacy of the human body, the meticulous detail with which everything, even down to the smallest finger, was designed. She had been occupied with just the hand for an entire month, especially the ingenius arrangement of the muscles that flexed the hand: the tendons required for the control of the tips passed deep to those that controlled the coarser finger movements; then at exactly the right time, these tendons for fine control emerged out from under those tendons for coarse control at the most distal joint of each finger, and the tendons for coarse control parted to allow the deeper ones to pass through. It was marvel of design such as she had never seen before; but nothing had impressed her more during her studies than the complicated foldings of the brain, especially the intricate, almost sinewy, threads that emerged out of the rostral end of the brain and seemed somehow to know just how they should distribute themselves throughout the rest of the body. This appreciation that she learned for the human body would not allow her to dismiss the gods out-of-hand as she knew Xena did; it convinced her that the designer of this wonder must be wonderful indeed.
Yet it was only after she herself had died that she grew to be moved by the living, watching as individual examples of mankind, now met while wandering the earth in her exile, demonstrated a spirit that she knew she had never found in her studies of the body that was left behind. Like the spirit of this man who, even asleep, possessed a burning dynamism that she had come to regard as more marvelous than anything else; it was the vital essence of a man that fascinated her now, and the vibrant tension it maintained with his existence, but she couldn't dissect any of it. She had thought she understood what went into the making of a man, down to the very fibers with which he was knit together; she wasn't as sure now. And this inspired in her a more awesome respect for the original wonder-maker.
Cherub suddenly became aware of a new presence in the room. She turned cautiously, then let out the breath she had been holding-in exasperation.
"Hermes!" she hissed, careful not to waken her sleeping charges. "You could try knocking once in a while; this whole popping in and out thing just gives me the creeps."
Hermes' smile was thin; he really didn't like this mortal's impious attitude. Without a word, he spread his arm out in the direction of the door; with a splintering scream, the wood simply crushed into itself, leaving only fragmented debris in the hall outside the room.
Cherub covered her ears at the noise, then turned to glare back up at the messenger of the gods.
"Knock, knock," he said, as the sounds of raised voices and feet clomping up the stairs began to build.
Cherub didn't bother to answer his taunt; she ran out to calm down the frantic innkeeper who was having fits over the pile of splinters that had been his door. Cherub had to apologize profusely for several minutes before she could get him to stop yelling and gesticulating wildly; and she had to hand over quite a few dinars before he could see straight enough to get them a curtain to hang over the gaping entrance.
Once privacy had been somewhat restored, Cherub ignored Hermes, and checked first on Diodorus, who was still asleep, and then on Maximian, who was thoroughly awake.
Hermes approached Maximian whose eyes were fixed upon him in apprehensive shock. Cherub tried to shield the shivering man, but Hermes grimaced and waved an arm in her direction; she found that she couldn't move her body at all. Hermes looked into Maximian's suffering eyes and said gently, "Sleep," reaching out his hand to take Maximian's head and ease it down to the cot.
Maximian's brow was uncreased, his breathing steady; Hermes' eyes lingered over the weary man's face for just an instant, but Cherub thought she saw pity in that briefest of instants.
Cherub said quietly, "You have my attention now, Hermes."
"Are you sure you're up to this, Gabrielle?"
"It won't be easy," Xena hedged. "Or painless."
Gabrielle nodded again, wordlessly. Before Xena could speak, Gabrielle looked up at the warrior and said, "Let's go, Xena. I don't know how much courage I have left."
"Let's go," Xena echoed, hoping she didn't sound as uncertain as she felt.
Xena and Gabrielle walked side by side through Phrygia's busy streets until they found themselves standing in front of the inn where Cherub was tending to Diodorus.
Deep into the night but before the sky had deepened into that darkest velvet which signalled the cycling of a new day, Gabrielle had finally talked herself out, and Xena, going over to where her friend sat quietly on the window ledge, led the girl to the bed and made her lie down.
She had watched Gabrielle lay there, her eyes open and staring up at the ceiling, until, feeling a strange pulling at her heart, Xena was compelled to reach out her hand and gently close those unseeing eyes. She had kept her hand over Gabrielle's eyes, applying the barest of pressures just enough to make sure that the bard kept her eyes closed-for some time; when she finally pulled her hand away, the bard's eyes had remained closed. Only then had Xena felt her own tiredness; laying down beside the bard, draping an arm gently over her friend's shoulder, she had fallen into a dreamless sleep.
It was late morning before they awoke. The first thing Gabrielle had said was, "Xena, I need to see my father."
It was a request that Xena had been dreading, but when it finally came, it brought with it a sense of relief as well, of being released from some terrible foreboding: it was done, a decision had been made, the course must be run to its finish. Xena was more familiar with this sensation.
Xena had no misgivings that this was the right course to follow: Gabrielle couldn't be herself until her father released her; and if he refused, then Gabrielle would have to find a way to deal with that, too. She just knew that it was going to be hard and painful on the sensitive bard; she knew that it was the bard's decision, but couldn't shake the idea that she had pushed the bard to make the decision. And so she had hedged.
But Gabrielle wasn't a child: she had fought down all her tumultuous emotions and resentment and the childish, yet comforting, notion of being ill-used to come to the hard decision to be reconciled with her father-for better or for worse-because it was right. Standing now at the door to the inn, Gabrielle found it damned hard to be mature. She unconsciously reached for Xena's hand.
Xena felt the little hand search out her own; she gave Gabrielle's hand a little squeeze, communicating respect and support, before releasing it.
Gabrielle placed her hands lightly upon her stomach, and took in a deep breath and released it quickly. She walked in.
They came to find the room empty. A sense of anticlimax swept through Gabrielle like a groan, and she suddenly felt exceedingly foolish, so foolish that she was on the brink of tears. But Xena suddenly pointed out the window which overlooked the stables and exclaimed, "Down there!" She placed a hand at Gabrielle's shoulder to set her in motion toward the door before barrelling out ahead of her, running for the stables where she had seen Gabrielle's father; she heard Gabrielle's footsteps behind her. She stopped once she was back in the street; she saw that the wagon had not yet left and allowed Gabrielle to catch up before proceeding to the stables.
Maximian heard them enter; as he arranged the blankets around Diodorus to cushion the boy during the ride home, he turned back to see his daughter standing a little distance from him, with the warrior only a footstep behind. For a second, the eyes of father and daughter met; then Maximian turned away and resumed his work of preparing a place for Diodorus in the bed of the wagon, more slowly, more deliberately than before.
Suddenly, Gabrielle's eyes were welling over with tears; she shook herself angrily, trying to force them back: she had grappled with her feelings for days, and finally prevailed against them in the course of a long night so that she felt peace for the first time in days; but finding the room empty and feeling so painfully foolish standing there, having screwed up her courage to the sticking place only to confront an empty room-the sheer ridiculousness had overwhelmed her maturity and decision to be reconciled. Now she stood there, and she was a child again, looking at the bent figure of the man she loved as Papa, and everything heaved within her. Memories flashed through her mind: holding Papa's hand as they walked to the market; the feel of his rough cheek under her baby lips and how he would rub his chin against her cheek, making her laugh out loud at the sandpaper texture of it; his wise profile as he spoke with her; his laughing eyes, and the dread seriousness she saw now. *Stop! I won't cry! I need him to look into my eyes, and he can't if I'm crying; if I'm crying he won't be able to look into my eyes and see my heart!* she screamed at herself; and only the sudden hush in her brain that followed caused her to register that Xena was speaking.
"...and leave Phrygia. Don't do this to her, don't do this to yourself. Please."
The proud warrior princess who never asked forgiveness for herself was begging now, for Gabrielle's sake. Seeing the bard suddenly overwhelmed into silence, Xena said the words that needed to be said.
She gave Gabrielle the will to pull her thoughts and feelings together one more time. Maximian had wordlessly jumped out of the wagon bed and was now walking over to the horses, stoically continuing his task of making everything ready for the journey home, giving no indication that he had heard any of Xena's words except for a dazed fixing of his eyes on the wagon beside him; Diodorus, pale but awake, looked at the ground at the women's feet, silenced by Maximian's silence and unable to meet their eyes. So Gabrielle said to Maximian's back, "Papa, I came to say good-bye; I didn't the first time, when I should have, and I'm sorry. You taught me never to let the sun go down on a wrong unamended. I should have gone back many suns ago; but I'm here now. So, goodbye, Papa; I'm so sorry for the wrong I did you, so sorry because I love you..." her voice choked within her. "Goodbye." The word carried a note of such forlorn, hurting love.
Maximian stopped for a moment, his broad back to her; then, heavily, he began to pull himself into the driver's seat. Gabrielle couldn't see his face; she only remembered the words Xena had said, "He says you are dead to him and his."
It was as if the air around her had been slowly compressed and squeezed until time and space were crushed by the steady force of a giant fist; Gabrielle suddenly couldn't bear it, and she turned to leave, the tears flowing freely now. She evaded the silent warrior's arm and stepped around her to begin to flee from the pressure that had a grip on her own heart.
"Gabrielle!" The girl stopped running, and Xena caught up with her in the next instant. It was Diodorus; the injured boy had somehow raised himself up to his knees and reached out with his hand toward her retreating figure, in anguish, aware of a master's eyes upon an unruly and willful apprentice, yet unable to keep himself from crying out regardless. "Good-bye, Gabrielle!"
And with those words, Diodorus fell back into the wagon, breathless in suspense.
Maximian stood frozen, hands gripping the wagon seat, one leg raised on the mounting block and the other still resting on the ground, arrested mid-movement in the act of raising himself into the driver's seat. His eyes were on Diodorus, and it seemed they might never move from him.
"The God of our fathers go with you-and keep you," he prompted in a low voice that strained with effort, his eyes fixed on the boy.
Diodorus turned sharply to look at Maximian, surprise overspreading his young face.
"Go on," the older man growled at him, his eyes no longer on the boy.
Relief replaced surprise, and, turning with a fresh and vigorous smile, Diodorus proclaimed with the solemnity of youth, "May the God of our father and his fathers before him go with you, and keep you."
Gabrielle's face, which she had turned toward Diodorus upon hearing his goodbye, now seemed to absorb the boy's benediction, her eyes closing. In the teenage boy's voice, she heard her father's release. Opening her eyes again, she saw her father leaning against the wagon with his two arms outstretched before him.
"Good-bye, Papa." That was all; Gabrielle turned and walked away. But it was enough: her father's blessing had released her, carried on the voice of a boy, entrusting the child he loved to the God that he loved because a father's love could no longer protect or keep her; his love for her had prevailed, enduring to the end, and it was this that Gabrielle had absorbed into her very being. It gave her the strength to say goodbye.
Maximian pulled himself into the driver's seat. Slowly, he raised his eyes and watched his little jay as she walked away. When she turned a corner so that he could no longer see her small form, Maximian, still looking straight ahead, lightly clucked at his horses to get them moving; when he came to the place where his daughter had turned, he guided the horses to turn in the opposite way.
End of Part I
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